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Building the Sanctuary of the Heart

The Hasidic movement was founded by Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer in eighteenth century Ukraine. It was a radical departure from traditional norms in which rabbinic leadership was predicated on scholarship and in particular mastery of the Talmud.

Rabbi Israel, who later became known as the Baal Shem Tov, was a schoolteacher and laborer. He was more enamored of mystical texts such as the Zohar than classical rabbinic texts. He loved meditating rather than studying. Unlike other rabbis he did not spend his days poring over traditional passages. Instead, he would spend considerable time wandering in the woods. He taught that the spiritual path was a mystical road open to anyone.

The secret is not, the Hasidic masters taught, mastery of chapter and verse, but instead in finding a teacher, a rebbe. Follow in his footsteps. Sing wordless melodies (niggunim) by his side. These were always the best medicine and the recipe Hasidism offered to the Jewish masses hungry for spirituality but unable to devote hours to study and learning.

Each of the Hasidic masters who followed Rabbi Israel offered nuanced perspectives. They developed competing schools of thought. Each generation refined their masters’ teachings and sometimes offered insights not heretofore known. Some took their master’s teachings in new and unfound directions.

Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Kotzk drew a sharp contrast with his predecessors. Whereas the Baal Shem Tov was forgiving in his approach and emphasized God’s compassion, the Kotzker rebbe as he later became known, was obsessed with God’s justice. In fact, he was so intoxicated with truth that he burned nearly all of his writings. Nothing a person writes could ever really approximate God’s truth.

Too often the outer life veils the inner. We spend our days dwelling on appearances and outer trappings rather than focusing on mastering the spirit.

Abraham Joshua Heschel observes:
If he were alive today, the Kotzker would look aghast at the replacement of spirituality by aesthetics, spontaneity by decorum. Like Kierkegaard he would vehemently condemn an aesthetic concept of Judaism acted out in customs, ceremonies, sentimental celebrations and polished oratory, as well as in decorative representations of God in terms of grandiose temples. He would also reject the reduction of Judaism to an outward compliance with ritual laws, strict observance mingled with dishonesty, the pedantic performance of rituals as a form of opportunism. (A Passion for Truth)
Menahem Mendel was unforgiving. He burned with truth. For the last twenty years of his life the rebbe lived in seclusion. Truth sometimes makes us abandon friends. Hard truths exile friendship.

The Torah commands: “Let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.” (Exodus 25)

Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Kotzk comments: “It says ‘among them’ and not ‘among it,’ to teach you that each person must build the sanctuary in his own heart; then God will dwell among them.”

It is not enough to build synagogues or temples, institutions or organizations. What matters instead is the sanctuary we build within. It is the truth we hold in our hearts.

Heschel again:
The Kotzker would call upon us to be uneasy about our situation, to feel ashamed of our peace of mind, of our spiritual stagnation. One’s integrity must constantly be examined. In his view, self-assurance, smug certainty of one’s honesty was as objectionable as brazen dishonesty. A moderately clean heart was like a moderately foul egg. Lukewarm Judaism would be as effective in purging our character as a lukewarm furnace in melting steel.
How do can we ignite the furnace in our hearts?

How can we live with truth and not as well live alone?